Iraq-Syria-Europe: On The Shifting Front Line Against ISIS

The Islamic State has been significantly weakened, at least from a military point of view, in Iraq and Syria. But the final blow keeps being postponed, even as jihadists strike in the heart of the West.

Iraqi Peshmerga fighters near Sinjar on Nov. 12
Iraqi Peshmerga fighters near Sinjar on Nov. 12
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer and Alfred Hackensberger

SINJAR â€" One whole day, and through the next night, American fighter jets were dropping their bombs. Countless houses, but also ISIS military positions in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, went up in smoke.

“Once they had enough, they ran off like bunnies,” says the lanky young Kurdish fighter who gives his name as Daoud, and cradles a Kalashnikov in his lap. “They were hiding in their cars, using women and children as human shields.”

On Nov. 13, when the ISIS killers wreaked havoc in Paris with their own automatic weapons, Daoud was busy fighting the terrorists here in Sinjar, on the front line. The Kurdish troops won their battle.

Even as they have successfully struck the heart of Europe, ISIS is looking extremely vulnerable back in their home territory. The attack of 7,500 men in northern Iraq took no longer than 48 hours, liberating this strategic area from Islamist tyranny. Sinjar, a former home to the Yazidi minority, is a midway point between two key ISIS strongholds: the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa. And here, ISIS is losing ground every day.

“Their defense was comprised of no more than 300 or 400 men,” says Major Kassim Simo, Sinjar's head of security. “Up to 200 were killed, it is not known how many died on the run.” The ISIS manpower shortage appears to be making it impossible for them to properly defend their own territory.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, the coalition has carried out about 8,000 operations against ISIS since 2014, during which at least 10,000 fighters have been killed. And even if the death rate turns out to be slightly exaggerated, the U.S. bombings have nonetheless caused significant damage. During the three-month battle in the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane, thousands of jihadists were believed to have been killed, which reports say led to a subsequent rebellion within their ranks.

Backing off

U.S. intelligence estimated ISIS in September 2014 to be between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters strong. At that time, thousands of volunteers from all over the world were queuing up each month to become members. According to Western sources, today there are no more than 50 or 60 per month. If a town like Sinjar, with 50,000 inhabitants, boasts only 300 to 400 fighters present, the shortage becomes clear, as does the eventual vulnerability to assault.

Yazidi temple in the Sinjar mountains â€" Photo: Danpanic77/GFDL

Still, at the end of the day, the power ISIS has wielded has never been about outnumbering the enemy: It is rather based on an ability to spread fear and terror. It took them only 1,500 men to conquer Mosul last year, after the Iraqi army fled in horror when they saw them coming. The same dynamic helped the Islamic State conquer one third of the country. But if there is resistance, ISIS fighters are quickly put back in their place.

That’s what we can see today in Syria. In Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad’s troops continue to send ISIS in retreat. And the Syrian Democratic Forces â€" a military alliance of Kurds, Sunnis and Christians â€" stand 40 kilometers from the ISIS capital of Raqqa. From a military point of view, ISIS could be defeated within a couple of weeks. French and Russian forces have stepped up their bombings, while the U.S.-led coalition averages 600 operations per month.

Fear paralyzes the armies

Why, then, does the final knockout blow keep being postponed? There’s at least one good reason for it: the fear of what may come next, notes David Des Rochers, senior military fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies. “If the political environment is not altered, if the Sunnis in both countries don’t get any perspective, then the crushing of ISIS would be about as helpful as mowing the lawn," Des Rochers says. "The threat would just grow back.”

Des Roches notes the constantly shifting risk of conflict driven by the Shia-Sunni clash throughout the region. “None of my Sunni friends are pro-ISIS. But they all tell me: "Why are you surprised? After everything the Shia have done to the Sunnis in Iraq ..."” Washington does have a certain influence on the Shia-led government in Iraq, but virtually none in the never-ending Syrian civil war.

Does all of this mean that the West should stay out of the Middle East as much as possible? According to political scientist Asiem El Difraoui, “When it comes to attacks like the ones seen in Paris, there are usually two factors involved: Europe’s social situation and its foreign policy failure.”

El Difraoui, A German-Egyptian who has long been based in Paris, warns that everything should not be attributed to the social exclusion of young Muslims in Europe. He notes how adolescents from different social classes and contexts have turned to the deadly extremism. “They feel they are missing values and are looking for ways to identify with this society,” says El Difraoui. “This might be because, similar to what happens in French suburbs, once they've failed at school, the only way they see the state is in the form of armed police. It may also trace back to the growing materialism that puts democratic values up front.”

What all these different forms of alienation have in common is the pseudo-religious concept of self-sacrifice. “This false and destructive doctrine of salvation through jihadism arose in the 1980s. By that time, the West was helping to build extremist groups, for instance in the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan," El Difraoui recalls. "Ever since, these groups have declared themselves at the center of history."

And if ISIS can indeed be vanquished, what can Europe do in order to prevent another successor from emerging? “Establish once and for all a stable foreign policy in the Middle East,” says El Difraoui. “And show that in our democracy, you can live an unrestricted and multifaceted Islam, in contrast to most Arab countries.”

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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